The general tendency of Stevenson’s writing, the spirit, if any, as apart from the letter, of his essays and romances is a tempting topic; although it does not necessarily belong to a consideration of his style.
Stevenson had the stock ideas of romance. Kidnapping, wrecking, piracy, mutiny at sea, treasure-hunting – these elements and elements such as these represent his stock-in-trade. Other novelists might write with a reforming purpose; Stevenson, well aware of what he was doing, was content to be an entertainer. Goldsmith, Dickens, Victor Hugo, Kingsley, George Eliot, Charles Reade, Thomas Hardy, all wrote with a social aim, and contrived to be entertaining as well. Walter Scott sought to illustrate life in various epochs. Save in ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ – a very absorbing and highly ‘moral,’ if also a very unpleasant tale – Stevenson is content to describe the adventures of pirates, smugglers, kidnappers, wreckers, beach-combers; Alan Breck, fighting Highlander of the eighteenth century; John Wiltshire, fighting trader in the South Seas; Dick Shelton, wholesale slayer of men in the fifteen century. He frankly admitted that he cared more for incident than for any other element of romantic interest. ‘Eloquence and thought, character and conversation,’ he says,
Were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain incident like a pig for truffles…
Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck.
With him the society or domestic novel represents ‘the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate.’
Stevenson does not appear to realise that, to a grown man, there may be as much high zest in fighting an election and facing up hostile crowds, in engineering a seemingly desperate but laudable business undertaking, in furthering the public weal against the fierce hostility of a vested interest, in making forlorn experiments, and bringing an invention to a successful issue through many difficulties, as there is any of the boyish escapades in which he takes delight.
His common sense and humanity made him espouse the cause of the Samoan as against German official muddling; and the speech to the Samoan chiefs in which he commended the making of roads and deprecated inter-tribal fighting was a triumph of the man over the romancer. But he is ashamed and apologies over these lapses into what he calls politics.
Probably he himself realised that his work represented little beyond entertaining story-telling and fine English (though these, of course, represent a very great deal.) In a letter to Mr Colvin he comments bitterly on a statement made by a reviewer that he (Stevenson) is read chiefly by boys. His romances are typical boys’ books; but the fathers read them and enjoy them, it is to be feared, more than the sons, however little they may profit by them in any high sense.
However Stevenson was latterly making four thousand a year; and it is not easy to make so much and still be doing the highest kind of literary work – the books that the public needs, but which it probably will not buy to any extent till the author is comfortably dead. Stevenson could not expect to have the solid pudding of public favour and the sounding praise of the discriminating reviewer as well.
A Neglected Field
Why have we no novelist to do for modern Scottish life – the life of the common people – what Zola has done for the French? That passionately serious and much misunderstood writer set out to illustrate the lives of certain industrial and professional classes in the Rougon-Mcquart series, being ‘the natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire’
This he did in a score of tales, tracing his ‘family’ down through four generations and through many callings well into contemporary times under the Republic. To mention a few of his titles is to indicate the wide and fruitful fields of life-study opened up to survey. Thus ‘Germinal’ deal with the life of the miners, ‘La Terre’ (the land) with the life of the French peasantry, ‘L’Argent’ (money) with stock-exchange gambling, ‘L’assommoir’ (The Dram-shop) with the life of the Parisian working class, ‘Nana’ with the theatre and the demi-monde, ‘La Debacle’ (the Downfall) with the corruption and inevitable fall of the Empire as preparation for the Repubclis and a better future for France, ‘Rome’ and ‘Lourdes’ with the quackery and obscurantism of the Church, ‘Paris’ with the life of the workman touched at last by the redemptive influences of popular education, skilled and self-respecting craftsmanship, and the revolutionary spirit directed to social and economic ends rather than vague political strife.
What is Done.
Nothing of this kind has been done for Scotland, prolific in novelists as Scotland has been, and many of these with an artistic equipment much superior to Zola’s. The author of ‘The House with the Green Shutters’ has pourtrayed with somber power some phases of lower middle-class life in a small Scots town; and in one or two unique sketches Mr Cunninghame-Graham has flashed momentarily if vivid sidelights on the same unlovely existence. But George Douglas’s tragic tale stands alone, and Mr Cunninghame-Graham does not profess to be a novelist. Mr J.M.Barrie has shown himself capable, though all too rarely, of something beyond making good-natured game of his fellow-townsmen. One recalls a true and touching picture of the Scottish farm-hand and his Jean, made reckless and riotous by the conditions of life in which there is so little to lose. Crockett expends his best work on the Covenanters. Ian Maclaren does not get beyond consumptive students, lachrymose widows, and sedulous country doctors.
The Scottish romancer usually avoids any period later than the ’45. Stevenson gets as near modern life as the times of Braxfield; but he discusses that execrable judge, and his shamed and resentful son, without reference to the field in which Braxfield earned his chief claim to infamy. He has nothing to say of those heroes of the Reform movement in Scotland whom ‘Braxie’ delighted to badger and insult before he sentenced them to transportation for life.
The times of Thomas Muir, of Fyshie Palmer, and of Baird and Hardie were stirring and momentous days. Midnight meetings, pikemen drilled in secret in the fields around Edinbugh, stirring speeches, flight, pursuit, arrest, sensational trial, transportation, the pathos and romance of failure, all gather round the Scottish movement for political rights, long since won by other means.
The modern Scottish writer of fiction shows no grasp of broad social phenomena, and nothing distinctively Scottish except the use of dialect, the gawkiness or pawkiness of some of their characters, and an occasional preachiness, as in the case of George MacDonald. But even in MacDonald’s case much that is manly and beautiful in his art and ideas appears in association with the traditional romanticisms, in the shape of the hidden staircase, the secret chamber, a demon horse, and that discovery of a blue-blooded origin for lowly situated characters which Gilbert satirised in the lines –
When everybody’s someone else, The no one’s anybody.
As a genuine, good-natured true picture of Scottish life and manners ‘Johnny Gibb o’ Gushetneuk’ still stands alone. But ‘Johnny Gibb’ and the excellent tales of Galt, Miss Ferrier and Neil Munro take no note of life in our squalid Scottish towns and cities. Imagine a Scottish Dickens doing for Glasgow what Charles did for London, a Scottish Thackeray exposing the snobbery of Edinburgh, a Scottish Zola or Mrs Gaskell lifting the lid off the domestic life of the miners, shipyard hand, and factory operatives, a Scottish Hardy, Hugo, George Eliot, or Tolstoy doing justice to rural society, including the inhabitants of hinds’ houses , farm kitchens and cottar houses as well as the folk of the manses and mansions with whom Scottish fiction has heretofore been so much concerned.
If it be said that other countries have not had their common life depicted in this way, I can only say that England, France and Russia have had such service rendered to them to an extent far in excess of what has been done for Scotland. The point is that Scotland has produced many writers of prose fiction, and that they have devoted their powers to the dishing up of an unreal, effete romanticism, have dallied with lords and ladies and a limited set of adventures and ‘situations’ that are no longer novel. If it be the business of the novelist, as Shakespeare said it was of the dramatist, to hold the mirror up to nature, to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure, what Scottish novelist has ever performed this service for his own time and countrymen?
Out of the experiences of a Socialist and trade union secretary, Mr Pett Ridge has made (in ‘Erb’) a realistic, amusing, and really novel story of London life. Are there no Scottish workmen, none of the devoted workers in the Labour movement who give their evenings to reading and committee work, their meal hours to correspondence, their week-ends and holidays to un-fee’d public speaking, their scanty means for election expenses and political publications, their working time to occasional canvassing and to service on public boards – are there none of those whose adventures, comic and tragic and useful, could be made similarly attractive in a fictitious narrative? ‘Wee MacGregor,’ the precocious boy; ‘Mrs M’Learie,’ the housewife who deranges her epithets, pleading that ‘it’s a’ yin!’ ‘Erchie,’ the waggish old waiter, who has a warm hert but a flet fit,’ are all of them sketches showing what fun can be made with the Glasgow dialect. But is the Second City such a paradisical spot, are the ‘lands’ of Edinburgh, the lanes of Dundee, and the ‘raws’ of the mining districts so entirely perfect as regards their surroundings and the life lived in them that they suggest nothing but ‘funniosities?’ The Scots workman, in his huddled two-row tenement, with his low wage, his poor food badly cooked, his Saturday-afternoon football match, his Saturday night ‘drunk,’ his Sunday-morning spell in bed, with a headache, a ‘cutter’ of whisky, and a ‘football’ edition – is he merely amusing?
We require a writer of fiction who shall be passionately in love with fact, absorbingly interested in his own time and people, who shall write with art indeed, but with an art that holds the mirror up to contemporary life, a writer profoundly impressed wit the veracity of the saying that truth is stranger than fiction who has the heart and hand to show that there is romance and heroism in the mean street, and absorbing human interest in lives apparently commonplace.
Importance of the Matter
The matter is the more important because a hundred people will read even an indifferent novel for one who will tackle a similar body of facts and ideas brilliantly presented in a work not cast in the form of fiction. Stevenson himself recognised the importance of this aspect of the novelist’s art. Commenting on Victor Hugo’s great prose epic ‘Les Miserables,’ he says: -
It is the moral intention of the great novel to awaken us a little, if it may be- for such awakenings are unpleasant – to the great cost of this society that we enjoy and profit by to the labour and sweat of those who support the litter Civilsation, in which we ourselves are so smoothly carried forward. People are all glad to shut their eyes; and it gives them very simple pleasure when they can forget that our laws commit a million individual injustices to be once roughly just in general; that the bread we eat, and the quiet of the family, and all that embellishes life and makes it worth having, have to be purchased by death – by the death of animals, and the deaths of men wearied out with labour, and the deaths of those criminals called tyrants and revolutionaries, and the deaths of those revolutionaries sometimes called criminals. It is to something of all this that Victor Hugo wishes to open men’s eyes in ‘Les Miserable’; and this moral lesson is worked out in masterly coincidence with the artistic effect. The deadly weight of civilisation to those who are below presses on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Socity rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable; setting Jean Valjean to pick oakum, casting Galileo into prison, even crucifying Christ.
It would have been too much perhaps to expect that the son of the well-to-do engineer and a cosseted only son at that, should have done for his own countrymen what Hugo, Zola, Upton Sinclair and others have done in their several times and places. But the work remains to be done nevertheless. There is in letters no work of greater moment.
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